Thursday, September 30, 2010

Big Al's Dharma Talk

I very much enjoyed this Dharma talk from 'Big Al', at the Stein Senior Center in New York - he speaks at the beginning and middle of video:

"That's what's most important, to not be afraid of life in any case."


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Only This Moment

It happened last night, while walking the dog with Prad. Right by the big house at the corner, across from the park. In the darkness, came the sudden realization that life is only made of moments, that's it, and in the heart, a great sense of urgency, to live life well, and to not waste a single second. Of course, I have known this for a long time. In my head. This time was different. 
Only one single moment exists, and that's the present one. The future is a figment of the imagination. When the future really happens, it becomes the present. The future never turns out the way we imagined because the person who imagined it and the person who experiences it aren't the same. Projecting into the future and delving into the past are both waste of time. The past is irrevocably gone. If we have done anything wrong in the past, we should learn from it so as to not repeat it - that's the only worthwhile remembrance to pursue. The past is quickly dealt with and just as profitably dropped.
This particular moment is the only one we can experience. When we have a whole day before us, it's like a whole lifetime. In the morning we are newly born, fresh and bright, and during that day we lie a whole life with all kinds of emotions - like, dislike, worry, disturbance, fear, anxiety, acceptance, tolerance, patience, love, compassion. They all happen in one and the same day, and if we don't make an effort also in that same day, we've wasted precious time. If this becomes habitual, we're liable to waste a good human life.
This realization comes on top of increasingly acute awareness of the "I" problem in day to day life. Examining thoughts, and emotions as they arise has made this plainly clear. Not that I am done with the "I", far from it. Fifty some years of habits don't get undone overnight! It's a process.
When we become aware how often the "I" gets in the way of our happiness, we will very likely become disenchanted with it and see that it is really not worth having around. This "I" is constantly creating thoughts and emotions which disturb our inner peacefulness. 
Disenchantment with the "I" is the first step toward letting go of our identifications and is bound up with effort. Even the effort itself is already a step in that direction. Whenever we give ourselves wholeheartedly to any wholesome action, the "I" shrinks.
Both quotes from Ayya Khema, in Be an Island.

Do you have any such ah, ah! moments? Please share . . .

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Relax First, Meditate Second

I have been enjoying Andrea Fella's recent talks on 'concentration'. There is much wisdom there, and great practical advice regarding how to be during sitting meditation. One point in particular has been informing my sittings as of late. Andrea talks about the need to relax first if one is to concentrate during meditation. This is so important!

Here are relevant notes from Andrea's talk:

When we think of how to concentrate we typically try to willfully stay with experience in order to get concentrated . . . There is this kind of grasping, holding on to something in effort to get concentrated . . . 
Relaxation is one of the best support for concentration. We are setting up the container of our meditation through learning how to bring attention to our experience in a relaxed way. Learning to find a way that will support this mind and this body to be relaxed and yet attentive . . . Starting with relaxation is a good beginning . . . Very ofthen my mind has habit of holding on to the breath. As soon as I see the mind trying, I go back to relaxation. I do this over and over again. At some point the attention figures out how to stay connected to the breath without tightening. We use relaxation to support the settling down of the mind and body. As soon as you feel the tension, you can release and relax it. We can add a little agenda to the relaxation too, an we have to watch that we don't get tight around that as well! . . . What does it mean for you to be relaxed and attentive? You need to explore and figure out way that works best for you. This is different for everyone . . . This is a mindfulness practice.

Through experience, I am finding my own ways of bringing ease into meditation. First is using the breath to dissolve the tensions. Breathing in, breathing out through the tightness, can go a long way. Then, there is the overall attitude I bring of gratitude for the practice, something I learned from Ayya Khema:

Loving kindness is another support that allows me to feel safe and to let go of unnecessary tightening. And last, there is focusing on sounds. Hearing meditation is one of the easiest doors for me to access concentration.

How do you relax when you sit? Please share . . . 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

An Old Script

What had started out as a sweet morning walk, quickly turned into a battle of wills. "Let's go straight on Stanford Avenue". "No, let's make a right turn along the soccer field, there is more shade" . . . Loved one had some definite ideas about which path to take, and so did I. The intense sun was adding to the unpleasantness, and someone had to oblige. No point in arguing, I decided to let him have his way. Inside, not so calm, though . . . There was a sudden surge of outrage, and powerlessness, and sadness. And nasty thoughts about 'him'. In a matter of minutes, I had shrunk back to the little girl I once was. And he had become the authoritarian father whom I had resented so much.

In silence, we walked. He, still miffed about having had to fight his way. And, I, processing the whole thing. The little girl had power on me, and refused to let go, for a long time. Or rather, I could not let go of it. The more time I spent feeling the stickiness, the less I cared about loved one's airs. He had his own stuff to contend with, and I could see how tied up he was also. Some ideas of self are harder to let go than others. The older the attachment, the stronger its grip.

Oh! the joy, as I was able to clearly see for the first time, the arising of the little girl self, and its exact connection with the arising of the controlling father self in loved one.

We need the reflection of our own being in others in order to see ourselves clearly. When there is disharmony with another person, it is a mirror image of ourselves. There can be no disharmony with others if we feel harmonious within ourselves. A mirror image does not lie. 
~ Ayya Khema, Be An Island ~

Just the life lesson I needed to drive home the reality of self and not self. The powerless child is only a passing phenomena, and one I can learn to part from over time. There is a strong woman waiting in the wing. She is wise, and strong, and does not react to patriarchal ways. She only responds to the needs of the moment.

What are some old scripts by which you still live your life? What conditions reactivate them? 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

What Self?

I have been listening with great interest to Gil Fronsdal's three part series of talks on the self. Here are my notes, and personal reactions to his first talk, on Anatta (Not-Self).

I appreciated Gil's clarification on the whole notion of self versus no self, according to the Buddha's teachings. It is not that there is no self, but that the self is inherently not a fixed thing.  

If you can see arising self as it occurs, you cannot make claim it does not exist. If you can see self disappear, you can't say that it really exists. The self arises and passes away based on constantly changing conditions. It is a fluid, contingent dependent phenomena. Our sense of self changes over a life time. 

Next is the question of how do we get in trouble with the self? 

If we cling tight to something that only exists dependent on causes and conditions, then our clinging has to contend with changing nature of these conditions. If we are grasping to some idea of self that changes and fluxes, then we will be psychologically challenged. Let say we leave our meditation cushion to go to the bathroom, and when we return, we find a latecomer has taken our seat. We may get upset that the person has taken 'my cushion'. The next time, we will have forgotten even where we were sitting. This is an example of an idea of self that arose dependent on condition. We call that activity of the mind 'selfing'. Other examples of unhealthy selfing occurs when  I need to be somebody and I hold on tight to  identities, definitions. We can hold on to self identities for a long time or in particular situations, or very briefly. Selfing can occur around roles, being a father, a teacher, am I good?, do people like me?, . . . 

How do we keep a healthy relationship to selfing?

We need for the mind to not be defined, not caught, not fixated by identity. The definition we live by can come from the outside or inside. We need to not be stuck in that kind of idea, or let other people limit us that way, only seeing us a certain way. We need to break fixedness of particular role we are playing. And when we pick up these kinds of self-concerns, we need to see that they are not fixed, nor absolute. Social games are about building ourselves up. It is possible to put these activities to rest. It is also important to realize we have a choice about which ones to engage in, and which ones to not engage in.

What is the role of meditation relative to selfing?

The function of meditation meditation is to give us clear, calm vantage point to help us see with real clarity how this activity of selfing begins and occurs - and also to watch how it goes away. Insight meditation is using calm we have to see how selfing arises in the mind, and how it goes away. It is quite something to get very peaceful and have mind being so empty without selfing taking place. There is no self-consciousness occurring. Happiness and peace are not dependent on self-definition. This is quite different from chasing, building up self-identity, which is what most people do much of their daily life, which is exhausting. Some of self-ideas people are hanging to are incredibly painful. I am a sinner, I am a bad person, I am a loser, etc. There are no fixed ideas in the world of self. It is an activity we are doing, and sometimes it gets frozen. Meditation is to thaw the freeze. 

In summary:

There are no fixed way that we have to be. We don't have to be a self  for anybody. We don' t have to be stuck in identities. I am this, I am that, I am better, I am worse than others.

Zen koan "If you can't speak, who are you?" Answer: you offer them a cup of tea. An example of responding to what's needed at that moment, instead of carrying out fixed idea of what we need to be.

The self is an activity, not a thing. It is ok to have self-definition. And it is important to be able to see it arise and put it down when needed.

This is not unlike Charlotte Selver's point about 'every moment, a new moment'. It is also very much what gets highlighted during interactions with a person with dementia. The unpredictability of the other person's sense of self, from moment to moment, requires that we constantly let go of our ideas about self, our role, our identity, our relationship to that person. In that sense, mindfully relating to a person with dementia is one of the best ways, besides meditation, to thaw any fixed ideas we may have about ourselves. 

The Truth of Not Knowing

Sitting this morning, I watched as various ideas of self came and went. The dutiful wife, the good meditator, the competent therapist, the concerned mother, the smart presenter, the unsure woman, the insightful blogger, . . . all taking turn to interrupt  sweet flow of breath, and simple hearing of bird sounds. 

Then, fear. Into the heart, down the arms, in the guts, down the legs, in the throat. I remembered Mingyur Rinpoche's talk on panic:

Relaxing the body, and being friend with fear. Fear receding. 

Then, irritation . . . and awareness of the irritation about the irritation. Irritation relaxing a bit, making room for an edge of sadness. Mind's urge to want to know, explain away, interpret. Frustration of no answer.

Sitting with discomfort of stinging heaviness, and not knowing.

Sitting . . .  

Friday, September 24, 2010

Caring Voices on Alzheimer's and Mindfulness

As a result of all my writings about Alzheimer's and mindfulness, I have received many moving comments from people caring for loved ones with the illness. So many pearls of wisdom, and love, that deserve to be honored and brought into the light!

I decided to gather them all in one post: comments from folks in various LinkedIn groups, in Zen Hospice Volunteers Yahoo Group, here on Mind Deep blog, at the Huffington Post, on Facebook . . . 
is there a general disease we could call hyperactivity of defining and labeling? and do we lose meanings in the progression? perpaps what we call disease, sickness, illness is nothing but the way of nature to balance. i mean surely many of us have heard that so called blind people (or others who lack one sense) have their other senses better developed in return. but are we interested in what their amplified sensory perception tells them about life, about us? or is it much more so that we have learned to define people by what they seemingly lack and then we stay with that definition, because ít´s more comfortable? my work with people who have dementia has lead me to the opinion that they do not lose something most important, but rather they regain something very important, namely the human ability to feel deeply. as far as i can see they develop a fine sense wether other people (e.g. we who are with them) are real, authentic. and they also develop something we all were capable to as children: the unwillingness to be not real, to be not authentic...honest. btw, yes, they work with me, too, maybe more than the other way around. only i get the money - Doris
I just visited my 98 year old mom. She lives on the Alzheimer's unit of Coventry Park in SF. The lessons of mindfulness have helped me enormously to even have a sense of humor when with her and the other residents. Staying present and not worrying about the future are most important well as finding a glimmer of humor - Ed
I agree about the gifts of dealing with Alzheimer's. My grandmother, who I am mainly responsible for, has it, and she has become so much mellower and more present than she ever was before. There is no choice but to be totally present with her, to let everything else go.... - Jess
I am reading through some of the Alzheimer's tagged posts, am eager to read more soon. This one made me cry. I suppose my heart is especially open this week, and especially to this... It is hard, it is painful. I feel gratitude to live so close to my grandmother now (she's in a retirement home near me) and to be part of her life. "It is that clenching in the most tender of places that creates so much of our unnecessary suffering." Beautiful... Such a good reminder, that I can stopping fighting my grief about various things and just allow the tender-heartedness. So hard sometimes - Jess
Thank you Marguerite for your timely article. It is a confirmation of my experience with my Mother who made her transition in 2005 after 13 years with Alzheimers.. It was a joy to experience the release of some inhibitions of her former personality and to be present with her in her now moments. She was more affectionate, MORE FULLY HUMAN in the middle stages of AZ, than at any other time of my experience of her as my Mother - Deborah
so often we don't stop to take people into our hearts and hear their stories. There's a beautiful woman at my mom's assisted living facility who always dresses to the nines - she's a sweetheart, 92 years old. She "crashed" a party we held there for my mom's birthday - my husband engaged her in talk and allowed her to stay when the facility staff came to tell her it was a private party. Apparently she tends to wander into other people's parties, but I think it was her way of connecting... There are many comings and goings at the assisted care facility - I am sure many of the residents there also know who's died and left or who's been taken away by ambulance. I try to say hello to the "regulars" when I come to visit my mom. It's not quite hospice, but as I've been a more frequent visitor it strikes me that here too, death is ever present and there's a tallying of staff changes and resident changes - Lori
It is easier for me to detach with non-family members -- when my mom says something odd and seemingly disconnected it can be very disturbing. But then I remind myself to come back to center, and be with her, and give her all the compassion I can muster. With an elderly friend, her demented ramblings were often a fun romp through time and space - of course her children didn't have the same perception - Tara
Yes, reminds my of my grandmother who went through this. So sad to see. It's hard to be with someone who doesn't recognize or remember who you are. It definitely brings up questions about what we really are. The person is still there, but many memories aren't. Is the person any less than what they used to be b/c of this? - Nate
yes this reminds me of the time I spent with my dad who had dementia before he died. You had to be prepared for anything (or nothing) when you went to visit. And to listen and offer what you could, as you point out. It was definitely an uncomfortable feeling driving toward the hospital. And then just being there for the visit. Always such good teaching. Disturbing sometimes. It reminds me of something my friend the Zen monk used to say, "be willing to be disturbed." - Carole
My dad also went down this road, noticeably changing over a ten year period. Dealing with my own sense of loss, realizing the extent of the comfort and support, my own dependency on what was being lost, was the first hurdle. For him, witnessing his own mental competency slipping away and maintaining a sense of self-worth seemed to be most difficult, at least in the beginning - 'Smiling Heart'
Thank you for you poignant, beautiful and cutting post. It cut through to the heart of the matter for me. It cut through all the judgement and impatience that I sometimes well up with when I realise that my dear mum just plain forgot or misunderstood or whatever the conversation we had. Whenever I have to go over and over things with her. Thank you, as I have spent time my self on many occasions been lost in mind agitations and fog, unable to meditate, sleep nor read. But somehow through my own inability to link the two together, I never thought of my dear mom and what she must be going through and what I put her through... "the importance of not setting her up" is foremost on my mind! - Miro
May you all be well, and at peace, and at ease, and filled with joy in the midst of suffering, yours and that of your loved ones.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Everyone's Dishes

Gems are to be found in the pettiness of daily life.

This morning, I was moved to do everyone's dishes. Usually, small mind's got things to say that get in the way of such generosity:

These are not MY dishes.
YOU clean your own mess.
. . .

This morning, the heart was open, and there was no MINE, nor YOURS. Only dishes that needed to be washed. And the joy of meeting dirty bowls and spoons.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A New Moment

From Katherine Rand, Buddhist blogger extraordinaire, this powerful video from Charlotte Selver, in my Facebook mailbox this morning:

Charlotte Selver was 101 at the time of the video. She was Ruth Denison's teacher, and the pioneer of Sensory Awareness. Charlotte's talk reminded me of something I wrote a year ago:
I just started this new practice. I call it the 'first time' love practice.
Imagine relating to your loved one as if you were meeting him or her for the 'first time'. Mind untainted by memories, good and bad from past encounters. And free of expectations regarding how things should and should not go between you two. Leaving all your baggage behind. Being totally present for each shared moment as it unfolds second after second.
New time, new experience. I look at him with virgin eyes, and I listen to him with open ears. As if meeting him for the 'first time'. Present moment as only reality. He's leaving his things behind, also. Fleeting thoughts come and cloud my view for a short while, and I brush them away, remembering they do not belong to now. Same with familiar feelings that threaten to weigh me down, if I am not careful. The desire to meet him is stronger. And I say to myself, the first time mantra, over and over, until I see him clearly, and I hear him well, again.
I have tried the other way before, and it hasn't worked. All that baggage was wearing me, us down.
Of course, sticky mind does not give up that easily . . . Since the time of my post, I have encountered many moments that felt like old moments.

I needed this timely reminder from Charlotte Selver.

Today, when I call my mother at her nursing home, and she repeats for the nth time, "So when are you coming?" I shall experience her question each time with fresh ears, and respond to her as if for the first time.

Will you join me in this practice?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

All In my Head

Boy, the mind is sticky! Sitting last night, after a long day working at my desk on 'big' project, it was hard not getting caught into thoughts. Planning, elaborating, fantasizing . . . getting lost in my own sense of self- importance. Head was overheating from so much activity, and efforts to land on the breath seemed almost in vain. There was much suffering.
The ordinary, untrained mind has a quality of stickiness. It keeps remembering old hurts and resentments, comparing the past to the present, and hanging on to its dissatisfactions. [or creating future that perpetuates the illusion of control and power!] We believe all the thoughts and projections that fill our minds. A mind like ours seems to have a fence around it and within that enclosure all understanding takes place . . . We should be cautious about the thoughts we think during the day, because they have no true found foundation; they are ego-based projections of our desires and habits. They do not touch upon absolute reality. This doesn't mean that we abandon them right away, but we treat them with caution. They're simply old habits, not commendable in themselves, not conducive to peace and happiness . . . Whatever we use as our personal identity constitutes our prison. Letting go is freedom. 
~ from Ayya Khema, in Be an Island ~
It's good to notice when the 'I' takes over . . . Only then can we start slow process of disengaging from it.

It is also worthwhile to pay attention to the conditions that put us at greater risk of entrapment. For me, danger lurks whenever I spend too much time in my head, engaged in intellectually rewarding endeavors. I literally need to come down, and ground myself in mundane activities such as doing the dishes, going for a walk, petting the dogs, . . . Talking to my mother who has Alzheimer's is another great way to do away with self-assertions from the ego. The illness leaves no room for fancy thinking. It has become one of my greatest teachers. 

What are your danger zones? How do you deal with the 'I' in your life?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Little Distillery in the Boat

Getting the mind settled during meditation is difficult enough. Going about our day, and maintaining  the sense of ease gained during meditation, represents and even greater challenge. This is particularly true in social situations, when our mind becomes exposed to the products of other minds. How to stay centered, and not getting pulled into the toxicity from others' unskillful actions and words? That is the question.

The answer is to be found in Ajaan Lee's simile of the distillery in the boat:
In one of Ajaan Lee's last Dhamma talks he compared life to taking a boat across an ocean. The problem out on the ocean is that there's no fresh water. For most of us meditation is like stopping in a port, picking up some fresh water, and putting it in the boat. Then we go out to sea and discover that we've run out of water, so we have to go back to port. As a result we don't get very far. If we're not careful, the winds will blow us away from the coast, and we'll find ourselves without any water at all.  
In other words, when we meditate we pick up a good sense of ease, a sense of inner refreshment. It's like stocking up on water. But then we take it out and we pour the water out our eyes and ears, all over the place. So we have to come back, meditate some more, get some more water — back and forth like this. We never really stock up on enough water to take us across the ocean. So an important lesson we have to learn is how not to pour the water out. What this means is learning how to maintain your center with the breath, inside the body, even when you go outside and deal with other people. This is one of the big issues in any meditator's life.
. . . 
The trick, as Ajaan Lee says, is to have a little distillery in the boat so that you can take the salt water and put it into the distillery, to turn it into fresh water. Then everywhere you go you've got fresh water. In other words, no matter where you go, you're right here: centered in the body, with your awareness filling the body. You're not leaving the body unprotected and you're not using up all your energy in those false outside defenses. You're creating a sense of energy here in the body, a sense of refreshment, and it's protecting you as well. This way you can travel around the world because there's salt water everywhere. If you've got the skill, you can turn it into fresh water — as much fresh water as you want.
So as you leave meditation, it's important that you watch to see: How does the mind move? How does it go flowing out your eyes and ears into the space outside your body? If you catch it and bring it back in, how is it going to complain? There's going to be a sense of fear, or a sense of uncertainty about trying to stay inside. In the beginning you may feel unprotected. Don't listen to those voices. Those are voices that took over your mind when you were a little child and didn't know anything. That was the best you could do at that time, but now you've got more skills, better skills, more understanding.
Learn how to reason with those voices: "Here's a good solid place, a good safe place, a secure place to be — right here inside the body — and you're operating from a position of strength." And just that much is not only a gift to yourself, but also the people around you. They'll sense the difference as well, and it makes your interaction with them a lot easier.
So learn to have some trust for this sense of being inside the body. The awareness that fills the body, the breath energy that fills the body, can protect you in a lot of ways. It can provide the nourishment and the refreshment you need at all times. At the same time, it develops a momentum in the practice. If you keep on creating all the water you need, when you have more than enough, you can share it with the people around you. Your sense of what it means to interact with people will change — will be a lot less fearful — and your sense of what it means to be refreshed will grow deeper and stronger.
~ from Thanissaro Bikkhu's Dhamma Talk, on Social Anxiety
Staying grounded, in the breath and the body, always, whether walking, standing, sitting, talking, eating . . .

Responding from one's center.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Our Own Mother

Yesterday, after posting my short bit,  I realized I had left out one important factor in the filling of the glass
If we want a realistic relationship with ourselves that is conducive to growth, when we need to become our own mother. A sensible mother can distinguish between behavior that is useful for her child and that which is detrimental, but she does not stop loving the child when it misbehaves. This may be one of the most important aspects to consider in ourselves. Everyone, at one time or another, misbehaves in thought, speech, or action - most frequently in thought, fairly frequently in speech, and not so often in action. What do we do with that? What would a mother do? She would tell the child not to do it again, reassure the child of her continual love, and get on with the job of bringing up her child. Maybe we can start bringing up ourselves.
~ From Be an Island, by Ayya Khema ~ 
Staying with the filling the glass image, what happens when one is cut from the source, or when the water cannot flow freely, or when the water that flows is polluted with undesirable elements? What happens when we have not internalized the capacity to be a good mother to ourselves? What are we do do? Are we to keep on meditating, hoping that sustained mindfulness will bring to light our chronic self-hatred and dissolve it ultimately? Are we to pay a visit to a psychotherapist and get reparented? Or are we to do both?

So many folks have trouble forgiving themselves for their imperfections, and when they sit, the process of seeing their misdeeds up close, only reinforces their sense of badness. This is where contemporary meditation teachers such as U Tejaniya, U Jotika, Thich Nat Hanh, or Mingyur Rinpoche can play such a crucial role in emphasizing that core issue of one's fundamental attitude towards oneself. 

Psychotherapy is another path towards self-forgiveness, and internalizing the good mother image. This is the road I took before I discovered meditation. Actually, the same can be accomplished through a personal relationship with a meditation teacher as long as he or she is sufficiently grounded in the feminine principle.  

Can you forgive yourself? How tolerant are you of your imperfections? Do you basically love yourself

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Filling One's Glass

Meditation: The Gift of Full Attention.

Sitting, I give myself the ultimate gift, 
of time, and full attention.
Replenishing the almost empty glass
with much needed water,
fresh from the source.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Lightness of Not Self

Disentangling From the Self's Trappings: Looking at False Humility, Conceit, Shyness, and Fear.

I very much enjoyed Gil Fronsdal's talk this week, about humility, part of his series on self and not self.

Here are my notes:
There are many aspects to humility. 
Humility is not the same as false humility. Some people are upset towards themselves because they have such a low opinion of themselves. This can get reinforced by negative comments from others. 
We don't try to be humble. Instead we try to understand all the ways in which we are conceited or arrogant. And we look at what happens when we let go of arrogance, and the painful feeling of contraction of self. 
Being humble is no longer comparing oneself to anybody.
Being conceited about being less than others is also another form of conceit.
Shyness is a form of conceit. We are getting caught in concern with our self-image, and sense of self. We can work through it by being very mindful so that we don't get pushed around by our shyness, or any other sense of self. We look at it very clearly. The minute we start looking at it, we cease to be it. Who are you? If we are looking at the looker, there is no one left. As we keep looking, in steady and clear fashion, it no longer makes sense to be weighed down by sense of self. All is left is just being. The Buddha refers to himself in very unsubstantial ways. "I am such". "The One who has come thus." A beautiful thing in meditation is to be present, without association to any concept.
Another way is to understand our limitation as a human being. Being mortal, means we are going to die. We doing a great disservice to oneself when we are very successful and capable. Ideas of self we have are magnets for attachments, fear, greed, and hate. This does not mean that we are not important, only that we should not take ourselves as so important. 
You cannot make yourself humble, but you can make yourself honest. 'Humility occurs when love of truth is greater than love of self.'
A great source of inspiration is seeing humility in others.
I resonate with the idea of making oneself honest, not humble. That I can work on, and I do. 

There is also another aspect on conceit, related to Gil's point on shyness, and that I struggle with often. Suffering from an anxious temperament, I have observed many times, the tie between anxious states, and an excessive preoccupation with the self. These are the moments when I experience the inflated idea I have of myself as a huge burden to be rid of. Wise mind steps in, and gets impatient, and wants to get down to the task at hand. 'Get out of the way, self!' Of course, this is not so easy to do, as the self-made idea of the self tends to be rather sticky. One practice that has been helpful is to direct my attention to other people. For instance, when presenting, I will look at people in the room, and take in their energy. The question then no longer becomes, 'How well am I doing?', but rather, 'What do these people need?'

What are some of the ways that you disentangle yourself from yourself? 

PS - Gil's entire talk is available on Audiodharma, under 'Self and Not-Self', 2010-09-13

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Calming the Heart With Heart

How Heartbeat Meditation Can Help Be With Difficult Emotions.

I have observed this before, but this morning was even more striking. Sitting with lots of fiery energy still, and deep sadness also, awareness naturally settled on the heart. Body relaxed, mind willing, breath out of the way, all that remained was pulsing. Strong, compelling, in the place of turmoil. Each heartbeat, a new anchor for awareness.  And the mind becoming calmer, and calmer. And the body, cooling down, more and more. I could have sat for a very long time . . . 

Once during a Dharma discussion at IMC, someone asked the teacher about feeling the heartbeat more than the breath. Where to go from there? No place in particular, was the teacher's answer.

Rereading the Kayagata-sati Sutta, on Mindfulness Immersed in the Body,  I found no mention of the heartbeat as an object of meditation. Breathing meditation, whole body scan yes, heart meditation no. This is puzzling to me. After all, one's heartbeat, although more subtle than the breath, is probably the physiological activity most tied to our emotions, particularly difficult ones. It would only make sense to calm the heart by placing one's attention there.

Have you had any such experience of calming the heart by focusing your attention on the heartbeats? Are you aware of any such practice?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

In the Heat

Welcoming Anger and Letting it Do its Work of Positive Self-Transformation: a Crucial Part of Feminine Mindfulness.

Anger is not to be mistaken with ill-will, its close cousin. Anger, of the kind that has been visiting me more and more, is to be welcomed, not uprooted. 

The challenge lies in how to live skillfully with that anger. Not projecting it as it would be so easy to do, but owning it fully instead, and seeing it for what it is: a helpful force and a necessary step along the path of feminine actualization. I am finding Linda Schierse Leonard's analysis extremely helpful in that regard:
"Rage can release the wounded woman, for her wound has a burning center that stings and hurts. Some women repress the hurt and the anger that goes with it. And then that anger turns inward, perhaps in the form of bodily symptoms or depressive suicidal thoughts that paralyze their lives and their creativity. Others let their rage out, but run over people in the process. In their hurt, they hurt others. No matter in which direction the rage goes, it is unfocused, unformed, and explosive. But it also carries powerful energy which, if utilized well, could release their potentiality as women. Rage can be a central force fro redeeming the father and transforming the feminine . . . 
The rage needs to be recognized and released before it can be transformed . . .
How can the wounded woman connect with such powerful rage instead of being threatened and terrified of it? And how can she transform the rage into creative energy? In my experience, there are at least two stages: first getting the rage out and then transforming the power of the anger into creative energy . . . 
Quite often the wounded woman is afraid of the fire and energy raging within . . . Letting the rage out into the open with a burst of feeling can actually limit rage by releasing it. For rage can be an act of assertion that sets limits and establishes identity by saying, "I won't take any more of this!" Confronting the suppressed rage with rage  . . . 
Ultimately this expression of rage needs to be not only forceful but formed and focused effectively as well. And this conscious awareness of one's energy and how one wants to use ti may keep women from making those original false promises that keep them helpless. In learning to relate to their rage, they may raise the level of consciousness about the unresolved cultural rage which at worst leads to war and persecution . . . When women begin to become conscious of their rage, then the responsibility extends to giving it form and shape . . . The way to get access to all that energy is to wait patiently and approach it indirectly . . . To form the raging energy, it is necessary to gain access to it in its nondestructive aspect so that one does not become possessed by it. To do this takes patience and knowledge, i.e., waiting until the right time and knowing what that is . . . Knowing what is behind the rage is very important. And this takes conscious differentiation - differentiating from the experience of the rage and differentiating the various elements of the rage. That takes sorting out what part of the rage is the unsolved anger of the father, and what belongs to the woman herself and to the situation . . . To sort out what part of the rage really belongs to you and how much is the other person's, or the unsolved rage of the parent, or even the rage of the culture is an enormous task . . . Part of the forming is being able to contain what is to be formed . . . Containing the energy and forming it means not dissipating it in formless rage but asserting it creatively. And this might happen in a political act, a work of art, raising a child, relating, and most of all in being, in the quality of one's life.
Ultimately, the transformation of rage results in a strong woman who with her creative energy and feminine wisdom can contribute to her growth of herself, others, and the culture."
~ from 'The Wounded Woman'
Today, sitting, swimming, walking, going about with the fiery energy of anger as my almost constant companion, I got plenty of opportunities to practice. There was joy from being able to be with the anger, and from knowing that I was not possessed by it. Rather, I could see very clearly my part, and that from outside circumstances. There was wisdom in deciding to focus on the personal element, and letting go of the rest. There was love in choosing to not linger in hurtful mind states. No 'poor me', no 'you bastard', no helplessness, no wishing for what I have no control over . . . Rather, the conscious decision to practice loving kindness, both for myself and the outer source of irritation. There was strength in the deliberate channeling of the energy towards positive outcomes.

Holding the rage, with great love . . .

As a woman, how do you navigate the hot waters of anger? As a man, how does your rapport with anger shape your relationships with women? 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Prepping to Meet

Mindfulness Tune Up Before Meeting the Psychotherapy Client.

Mindfulness-based psychotherapy is not so much about techniques as about the therapist's quality of attention, to self and to the ones being served. I must have skimmed through dozens of books on the topic, and not much has stuck. In the end, the glue that makes it all work is a fundamental quality of attention that can only be cultivated through personal mindfulness practice.

Before meeting with a psychotherapy client, I always make sure to prep myself with the following routine:

Short sitting meditation, using breath as focus of attention, followed by quick body scan - stepping out of sole thinking mode into embodied awareness.
One or more yoga stretches, to release some of the contractions in the body.
Walking meditation, which can be as short as walking to go welcome the client in the waiting room - great for grounding oneself even more.

A few minutes, that's all it takes. A few minutes that can make all the difference between being fully present, or not. 

The same routine can be used in other settings. Before a work meeting, before picking up the kids from school, before connecting with your lover, before sitting at the bedside of a sick one, . . . 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Pure Mind, Pure Heart

Learning From Zen, About Purification Practice.

Reluctantly, I dragged myself out of bed to make the one plus hour drive to Green Gulch Farm. I was to spend the whole day with fellow Zen Hospice volunteers for a silent retreat, with Victoria Austin as our teacher. Once there, there was no escaping the unpleasantness that had been with me for the past few days. Mindfully sitting, or walking all morning, mind had nowhere else to turn but to the hotness, and the hard ice coldness permeating my whole body. I had been quick to jump to conclusion, finding a convenient hook out there for the stuff. Someone else was responsible, I was convinced. 

After lunch, walking the path through the gardens, I had plenty of time to contemplate between each step. There had to be another way. I remembered Ayya Khema's wisdom, and started tracing back the source of such discontent. Down the ladder of emotions, and thoughts, I went. Until, poof, the light went on, just as I was coming around a curve in the road.

Green Gulch - Path Through the Gardens.
Of course, the real trigger was not outside. No, it was to be found inside, deep in some old part of my personality, same one that had caused me troubles in the past. I almost leaped with joy, as I felt the relief from clear seeing. I started feeling love for the object of my previous ill-will, and for myself. There was a completely new feeling also towards the young one inside. A sense of welcoming, that it could teach me exactly what I needed to know next. I continued to walk until I reached the beach. And picked up a black pebble in the shape of a heart. 

Late, I returned to the zendo where Victoria had started giving her talk already. I had not bothered to check the topic ahead of time, and was struck by the synchronicity. Victoria's talk was about purification and the 3 Pure Precepts
"The traditional version of the Pure Precepts is "Renounce all evil, Practice all good, Keep the mind pure, Thus have all Buddhas taught." . . . One way that Suzuki-Roshi translated them was, "With purity of heart, I vow to refrain from ignorance. With purity of heart, I vow to reveal beginner’s mind. With purity of heart, I vow to live, and be lived, for the benefit of all beings." . . . The Pure Precepts also are related to Right Effort, the sixth aspect of the Eight-fold Path. The traditional meaning of Right Effort is one’s endeavor or energetic will to abandon unwholesome states and to develop wholesome states. Wholesome states are those which have what in Buddhism is referred to as wholesome roots. The three unwholesome roots are greed, hate, and delusion, and so their opposites, non-greed or generosity, non-hate or lovingkindness, and non-delusion or wisdom are the roots of wholesome states. In Buddhism, volition, or the mind with which we act, determines whether an action is "good" or "bad," wholesome or unwholesome, rather than the activity itself being inherently good or bad . . . When I think of "evil," I think of some really extreme situation like Hitler or a fairy tale-like evil stepmother. If our vow is to "Renounce all evil," it is pretty easy to think, "Of course I renounce Hitler, or I renounce evil"; but if our vow is to abandon unwholesome activity or to refrain from actions leading to attachment, this suggests much more subtle and pervasive activity. We really have to look at, and be present with, our actions and intentions in order to find how attachment and defensiveness set in, and to be aware of self-centered motivation. If I try to refrain from evil, it seems pretty easy since almost nothing I have ever done do I consider "evil." On the other hand, if I try to refrain from action that is motivated by greed, aversion, or delusion, i.e., unwholesome activity, I need to pay a lot of attention to what I am doing and thinking."
~ Josho Pat Phelan, 'Taking and Receiving the Precepts', Part 3 ~
I was struck by Victoria's story of how she came to Buddhism. She told us about her near-death experience as a young woman, of her car being thrown into the air, and her whole life flashing before her eyes. "I felt I had led such a petty life. I was ashamed."Victoria realized she had to lead her life differently. This is what the Pure Precepts are about, living life out of a pure heart, and with great clarity.

Victoria asked us to come up with a purification ritual. We ended up each writing our unwholesome thought on a piece of paper and burning them with a stick of incense. Then we gathered in a circle in the four-gated meadow, removed our shoes, then placed our hands on our heart, bowed and held hands. 

Which mind states do you need to purify?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Living the Questions, Now

A few days ago, I found this quote from Rainer Maria Rilke:
"I would like to beg you, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answers." 
~ as quoted by U Jotika, in 'Snow in the Summer' ~ 
I needed that wisdom . . .  Rilke helped put a halt to my need to figure things out.

And now, a collage, fresh from the unconscious, with more questions:

Earlier, I went for a walk with the dog. Walking, I repeated to myself, "May I be at peace, may I be at ease, may I be happy . . . "

May all beings be at peace, may all beings be at ease, may all beings be happy. It is September 11th after all.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Pain Beyond Words

U Jotika's Freeing Perspective on Pain.

I continue to draw much inspiration from U Jotika's teachings. This morning, pain found its way inside, as it often does. Heart and body, both hurting. Full of resolve, I sat, determined to not give thinking mind much of a chance. Using breath as an anchor, I let myself sink deep into the flow of sensations, moment to moment. Sure, thoughts did come once in a while, but awareness was watching, and did not let them rule the sitting. There was hardly any reactivity to the pain, and a whole hour went by, without mind getting restless as it usually does. 
Because of our thoughts we experience something more intensely. So when we stop thinking and just become aware of it we don’t really feel anything anymore. What I mean to say is that, things don’t have intensity anymore. Even with pain, say you have pain in your knee when you are sitting and meditating; the more you react the sharper it becomes. When you stop thinking about it and just be in touch with it, without trying to do anything, not trying to overcome it, not interpreting it, just being with the pain, after a while you feel that the pain becomes vague; it is not as painful as before. Our thinking process makes the sensations stronger. When you stop thinking and just get in touch with it, it becomes so vague, that we feel that something is missing. We want to take hold of something. For example, if you have a big round ball, can you hold it with one hand? You cannot. It is a big round slippery ball. But if you put a handle on it you can grab it by the handle. The name, the tag, the interpretation is just like the handle. With the handle we grasp things very strongly, we won’t let it go but, without that handle everything is slippery, you can’t hold to it. When you stop thinking, you get in touch with it, you can’t grasp anything anymore. It becomes slippery and vague, that is the way it should be. 
. . . 
When you experience pain, as long as you can be with the pain to endure it, see how your mind reacts. This is a very important learning process. Buddha gave a very deep and profound teaching, “although my body is in pain my mind is not in pain” (~SN iii.1). This is something you should practice! We cannot really get rid of all the pain in our body. As you grow older and older you know that you have to live with pain. People have arthritis; there is no way you can run away from pain. If you take too much medicine it will destroy your liver, kidneys and many other things. If you want to take medication it is ok; that is not what I am saying. For normal pain it is not going to hurt you very much, so, try to be with the pain and see how the mind reacts. In some cases, we try to move not because the pain is unbearable but because we are restless. We move because we are not in the habit of being in touch with the pain. When you feel pain, without thinking of pain, without even using the word pain, although in the beginning you can use the word pain, but I have noticed that when you use the word pain it becomes more painful, because you are interpreting it as ‘pain’. Pain is something that you don’t like. So automatically you react to the word pain. If you stop using the word pain and just get into the pain, be with the pain, you’ll find that it is very interesting, your mind can stay there for a long time. Some of my friends, who are very scared of pain, don’t want to meditate because they think it will be very painful. Slowly and slowly they have learnt how to meditate and after a while they come in touch with the pain and stay with it, and found out that it becomes very interesting. They get absorbed in the pain. If you are willing to be with the pain, it is not so unbearable; if you are unwilling it becomes more and more unbearable. It is the way that your mind looks at experience. Whenever you feel pain, be with it, it will not kill you, actually. When you find that “this is my limit” and I can’t really go on sitting like this anymore, move very slowly, move a few millimeters and see the pain getting less, the whole experience, and the mind also. When the pain gets a little bit less your mind becomes a little bit relaxed, “Oh… It is nice now… feeling better now”, then move a little bit again; feeling better now. Move again, and then you find another position where you don’t feel pain anymore, you feel happy, you feel very relaxed and then you continue to meditate; sitting for an hour or sometimes even for two hours. 
It takes time for the mind to let go of itself. Today felt like a big breakthrough.  Being able to experience the effect of freedom from mind is like fuel for the practice. Now, I want to sit more, and longer.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

I Think Too Much

Our usual thinking mind does not do well with nuances. At least, mine doesn't . . . 'I feel grief.' 'I love this!' 'I have a lot of pain.' So many examples of blanket thoughts that solidify one's experiences and leave no room for the ever changing reality of life. 
We think that there is some sameness all the time, something that is always there. This is the way we create continuity in our mind. Thoughts create continuity and they create this idea of sameness. When we totally stop thinking and become mindful and concentrate and pay attention to whatever is happening right now, we see that something is arising right now. It was not there before. It is right now.
~ U Jotika, 'A Map of the Journey'
This morning, feeling the heat of anger rising, I stepped outside of habitual thinking mind, right into the inferno.  And discovered with great wonder, a myriad of physical sensations, many of them quite pleasant, that kept coming and going. I did this for a few minutes, for that was all the time I had. The whole experience made me curious though. What else would I have discovered, had I lingered some more?

Life as a stream. Always moving, always changing, alive . . . 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What To Do With Grief?

2 Questions About Grief: To Pursue it, or Not? To Evaluate it, or Not? 

It is not enough to sit with grief. One needs to contemplate grief, investigate it, acknowledge it fully, give it a face or several ones if necessary. Grief is like a crying child that won't stop until his mother picks him up and comforts him. 'Tell me, my child, what happened?' Grief is like that. 

Grief has been a frequent visitor lately, and today  I decided to do something about it. I took a pen and a piece of paper, and I started writing down all that's been causing me grief. Six situations altogether, some personal, some universal. Each one of them, a clear loss, compounded by lack of acceptance and unrealistic expectations on my part. Each one, an opportunity to further explore suffering, and life's inherent unsatisfactoriness, and the impermanence of all things, including the most dear ones. Each one, a new poke into the heart, allowing for more love to rush in. Each one, another sobering reminder that there is no control to be had. Going down the list, I could feel grief loosen its grip. It's amazing how little it takes sometimes, to ease one's suffering. 
"'Grief is of two sorts, I tell you: to be pursued and not to be pursued.' Thus was it said. And in reference to what was it said? When one knows of a feeling of grief, 'As I pursue this grief, unskillful mental qualities increase, and skillful mental qualities decline,' that sort of grief is not to be pursued. When one knows of a feeling of grief, 'As I pursue this grief, unskillful mental qualities decline, and skillful mental qualities increase,' that sort of grief is to be pursued. And this sort of grief may be accompanied by directed thought & evaluation or free of directed thought and evaluation. Of the two, the latter is the more refined. 'Grief is of two sorts, I tell you: to be pursued & not to be pursued.'
~ Sakka Panha Sutta: Thanissaro Bikkhu' s translation ~ 
Today, I chose to pursue the mountain of grief welling up within. It seemed wise to deconstruct it, all six pieces of it, and to examine each one. Not the most refined way, but the one that worked for where I am at right now.  

How do you live with grief? What has it taught you?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Can Emotions Be Changed?

A Look at the Nature of Emotions, and How to Work with Them From Buddhist Psychology Perspective.

Thanks to one of my Dharma friends from Tathagata Center, I have discovered another Burmese gem. This time, it is U Jotika, an elusive Theravada monk, whose monastery I have not been able to locate yet. I have heard he spends most his time traveling all over Burma and Southeast Asia. U Jotika's balanced approach reminds me of Ajahn Chah. Today, I contemplate his teachings on the whole notion of 'changing emotions':
In some books I read about mental states and consciousness and wisdom and they say that you can change your anger into love; that is impossible! You cannot change your anger into love, into metta, you can’t change dosa (hatred, aversion) into metta; dosa arises and passes away as dosa. Loving kindness (metta) arises as loving kindness and passes away as loving kindness; it cannot change its nature. Its unique, natural characteristic does not change. It only arises and passes away; that is why it is impermanent (anicca). There is a lot of confusion even among meditators about this point; some people think that they can change one thing into another. In a definition of anicca they say that paramattha does not change. There is a Pali sentence that says that paramattha does not change. Some people are confused about the meaning of this. If reality, paramattha does not change it means that it is permanent. No, it doesn’t change its nature, but it arises and passes away. Arising and passing away, impermanence and not changing nature does not contradict. This is a very important point especially for those who are potential teachers.
~ from 'Map of the Journey', by U Jotika ~ 
To be contrasted with Ayya Khema's view on same topic:
Some [feelings] are pleasant, some are unpleasant, some are neutral, but our reactions don't have to be preplanned, impulsive, instinctive. We can look at them with mindfulness and put the brakes on. Substitution is much easier than just dropping what is in the mind. Although dropping is the perfect way to get rid of clinging, it is more difficult because it is a letting-go aspect. In the beginning, substitution is a necessary response . . . When aversion, rejection, resistance, anger, jealousy, pride, greed, or craving arise within, we can take a moment to look at them mindfully. When we recognize their burdensome impact on us, we understand that we need not continue to let them exist. We can substitute compassion, or the idea that they are not important, or the understanding of impermanence, or corelessness. This is particularly true of anger, which makes life so very unpleasant for oneself and others. When we get angry with a person, we can ask ourselves first of all, "What am I getting angry at? Is it the hair, the nose, the eyes, or what? Am I getting angry at his words? If it is really unpleasant speech, it means the other person is unhappy. "Why should I get angry, then? Why can't I be compassionate?" If we can change our anger to compassion, we will feel good, the other person will feel good, and we will have taken a step forward on our spiritual path. 
~ from 'When the Iron Eagle Flies', by Ayya Kkema ~
 And also Mingyur Rinpoche:
If emotion is too overwhelming, 1) go back to other objects of meditation, such as sounds, smells, forms, breath, etc . . . or, 2) make a different emotion, eg, anger instead of panic (gossipy neurons will join anger group instead of panic group)
~ my notes from Rinpoche's recent Joy of Living Retreat ~ 
Three teachers, three different approaches that may seem contradictory on the surface. Upon closer examination, however, the differences may have to do more with semantics.  In the end, it all has to do with the power of the mind to not react, and to insert itself in the midst of powerful emotions. Situations cause feelings that cause thoughts, that cause emotions, that cause feelings, that cause emotions, etc . . . Of course emotions are what they are, and cannot be changed. Their demise can be hasted however, with mindfulness about their effect on us, and the cause and effect relationship between thoughts and emotions. 'Changing' emotions actually involves letting go of defilement, and cultivating instead a wholesome mind state, including wholesome thoughts and emotions. 

This is my take. What do you think?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Up Pali Highway

Three days in a row, we drove up Pali Highway,

Pali Highway
through the tunnel, and past the Pali Lookout sign,

Pali Lookout
with the Pali peak on our left.

Pali Mountain
Three days in a row, sitting in the passenger's seat, I felt grief the whole way, and also later as we took our usual long walk along Kailua Beach. Grief, looming big in the middle of tropical sweetness. I wanted to explain it away, but couldn't. Being with, was the only option left.

Kailua Beach
Walking back, pangs of morning hunger took over. All I could think of, were the bananas awaiting in the car.

Out the grief, in the small suffering of not yet satisfied craving for food.

PS - Clever mind got a real kick out of, Pali (cliff in Hawaiian) - Pali (the language of the Buddha's teachings) :)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

When The Mind Plays Tricks

Doubt Is Bound to Arise During Meditation Practice, and It is Up to Us to Catch It.

Lately, I have been practicing mindfulness of the body with a renewed intensity:
"Furthermore, when going forward & returning, he makes himself fully alert; when looking toward & looking away... when bending & extending his limbs... when carrying his outer cloak, his upper robe & his bowl... when eating, drinking, chewing, & savoring... when urinating & defecating... when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, & remaining silent, he makes himself fully alert. And as he remains thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, any memories & resolves related to the household life are abandoned, and with their abandoning his mind gathers & settles inwardly, grows unified & centered. This is how a monk develops mindfulness immersed in the body."
~ Kayagatta - Sati Sutta; Thanissaro Bikkhu translation
And, I have noticed something arising in the process.

Thinking mind does not like that I am placing so much attention on 'simple' matters. What is the big deal with noticing each step? Left foot, right foot . . . What is the big deal with noticing each stroke during swim practice? Left arm, right arm . . . What is the big deal with noticing each sip of tea? . . . and each bite taken?  . . . What is the big deal? 

Thinking mind has a strong opinion about this, I noticed.  If  I was not careful, thinking mind would take me down another path, where thoughts about past, present and future rule. 

In the heart, doubt tries to creep in. 

The benefit of right view coupled with mindfulness, soon becomes clear, when wise mind intervenes, countering doubt with faith, and pernicious thoughts with other thoughts, planted before:
Sustained application counteracts skeptical doubt. When we can stay with the subject of meditation and do not become distracted, we gain confidence through the experience that, first of all, it is possible; secondly, that we are able to do it; and thirdly, that the results that accrue are exactly as the Buddha said. Until then, doubt arises again and again in the most insidious ways. Skeptical doubt is the enemy of faith and confidence, and therefore of practice; the mind can provide all sorts of ideas, doubts and excuses - "There must be an easier way," or "I'll try something different," or "I'll find a better teacher or a better monastery," or "There must be something that will really grip me." The mind is a magician: it can produce a rabbit out of any hat.
Skeptical doubt shows itself when we cannot fully immerse ourselves in our present situation.  Skeptical doubt keeps us back, because we are afraid to lose control of self-importance. When we have a little personal experience of the results of the Buddha's teachings, our doubts are counteracted, yet not completely eliminated. At least we no longer feel unsure about practicing meditation. We have experienced results and we have also realized that it makes no difference where we practice, as long as we are steadfast. That, too, is important, because we can search for a perfect place, time, situation, or teacher until the end of our lives and never find any of these because skeptical doubt always intervenes. 
~ When the Iron Eagle Flies: Ayya Khema ~  
How does doubt manifest itself in your practice?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

3 Lessons I Learned the Hard Way About Decision-Making

In a recent post, Katherine Rand raises a question that has been with me for a very long time. How does one go about 'Making Decisions'?
There was a time when I believed that “I” was deciding something, particularly when it came to the major things like dropping out of high school, going to college, quitting a job, dating a boy…I would employ all sorts of analytic methods for arriving at a logical decision, but in the end, it was always made at more of a gut level. Because it felt right. There is no doubt that mind and heart work in conjunction with the big questions in life, but in the end I’m not sure that anyone is actually making a decision. It just happens. Conditions line up, there’s cause and effect, things happen, conditions change, other things happen.
I agree with Katherine. The narrow, logical thinking mind can only go so far. It can help take us to a certain point however. 

A few days ago, I went through an interesting exercise. I looked back at my whole life, and sorted out all the major decisions I had made into three categories: good, bad, not sure. Then, I looked for patterns within each category. Here is what I found:

In the good category, I had made decisions out of pure love, and the urge to create.

In the bad category, I had made decisions out of fear, greed, insecurity, ill will, or ignorance - not being conscious. 

From this, I drew a series of lessons for future decision making:
  1. never make decisions while in the grip of hindrances
  2. do not rush - instead take all the time that's needed to discern the whole picture
  3. involve your whole self, not just narrow logical thinking mind
Looking back at your own life, what are some of the lessons you have learned? Can you share?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Little Spider In the Night

It woke me up with an itch. Not once, but twice, three times, and more. 

The little spider chose to strike last night, just when I was counting on a good rest. Several times, I turned on the light, to inspect the growing damage. When would it stop? 

Past the initial moments of getting lost in frustration, I laid awake, contemplating. And decided to switch from passive victim to curious investigator. 

I figured it was pointless fighting the little spider, for it was just going to do its thing. I might as well learn from the situation. 

Breathing in, breathing out, I notice the itching still, and a lot more, like wanting to get rid of the itching, the urge to scratch. There was aversion, and irritation for not getting what I wanted - a break from spider. There was craving for a quiet night. There was worry that I would be tired in the morning. And there was joy also, from stepping out of the spider’s web, and using wise mind to watch, patiently. Impromptu lying meditation is practice too. I remembered passage I had read the night before, from Mahasi Sayadaw’s ‘Instructions to Insight meditation’, 
The noting in vipassana meditation should be continual and unremitting, without any resting interval between acts of noting whatever phenomena may arise. For instance, if a sensation of itchiness intervenes and the yogi desires to scratch because it is hard to bear, both the sensation and the desire to get rid of it should be noted, without immediately getting rid of the sensation by scratching. 
If one goes on perseveringly noting thus, the itchiness generally disappears, in which case one reverts to noting the rising and falling of the abdomen. If the itchiness does not in fact disappear, one has of course to eliminate it by scratching. But first, the desire to do so should be noted. All the movements involved in the process of eliminating this sensation should be noted, especially the touching, pulling and pushing, and scratching movements, with an eventual reversion to noting the rising and falling of the abdomen. 
Eventually sleep found me in the early morning, shortly before I was to wake up. 

Itching, spider, gone . . .

Thursday, September 2, 2010

To Each His or Her Own Meditation, . . . and Teacher.

Concentration or Insight Meditation? Which One is Right for You? Which Teacher Can Best Help You?

(cross-posted with Elephant Journal)

Whether to engage in concentration versus insight practice, is a huge topic for meditators. It seems that every teacher has a different answer. One teacher instructed me to focus on insight. Another one was adamant that I should develop concentration first . . . Who to believe? What to do?

U Pandita favors starting with concentration practice,
Concentration is the proximate cause for the unfolding of wisdom. This fact is very important. Once the mind is quiet and still, there is space for wisdom to arise. There can be comprehension of the true nature of mind and matter. Perhaps there will be an intuitive insight into how mind and matter can be differentiated, and how they are related by cause and effect. Step by step, wisdom will penetrate into more and more profound levels of truth. One will see clearly the characteristics of impermanence, suffering and absence of self; and finally insight is gained into the cessation of suffering. 
U Tejaniya emphasizes wisdom over concentration,
In reality, if there is awareness, wisdom will arise. However, if the awareness is too focused, then wisdom does not have a chance to arise. That is why you should not force, focus, control, or restrict the mind. Have no expectations about your meditation. Do not be discontented with your meditation. Be aware of all that is happening, all that is passing away. Do not try to make anything disappear. Do not forget . . . Please do not choose objects. All objects are dhamma nature, dhamma phenomena. You cannot hold onto any object with lobha. Do not perceive object or experience as good or bad. No object or experience is better than any other. Objects are just that: objects. They are to be known—that is all. 
Ajahn Chah recognizes two different types of persons - one is naturally inclined towards concentration practice, the other towards insight,
Some people have insight and are strong in wisdom but do not have much sam¯adhi. When they sit in meditation they aren’t very peaceful. They tend to think a lot, contemplating this and that, until eventually they contemplate happiness and suffering and see the truth of them. Some incline more towards this than sama¯dhi. Whether standing, walking, sitting or lying, enlightenment of the Dhamma can take place. Through seeing, through relinquishing, they attain peace. They attain peace through knowing the truth, through going beyond doubt, because they have seen it for themselves. Other people have only little wisdom but their sama¯dhi is very strong. They can enter very deep sam¯adhi quickly, but not having much wisdom, they cannot catch their defilements, they don’t know them. They can’t solve their problems. But regardless of whichever approach we use, we must do away with wrong thinking, leaving only right view. We must get rid of confusion, leaving only peace. Either way we end up at the same place. There are these two sides to practice, but these two things, calm and insight, go together. We can’t do away with either of them. They must go together.
Three great teachers. Three different takes . . .

I found the best answer here :):
"Monks, these four types of individuals are to be found existing in the world. Which four?
"There is the case of the individual who has attained internal tranquillity of awareness, but not insight into phenomena through heightened discernment. Then there is the case of the individual who has attained insight into phenomena through heightened discernment, but not internal tranquillity of awareness. Then there is the case of the individual who has attained neither internal tranquillity of awareness nor insight into phenomena through heightened discernment. And then there is the case of the individual who has attained both internal tranquillity of awareness & insight into phenomena through heightened discernment.
"The individual who has attained internal tranquillity of awareness, but not insight into phenomena through heightened discernment, should approach an individual who has attained insight into phenomena through heightened discernment and ask him: 'How should fabrications be regarded? How should they be investigated? How should they be seen with insight?' The other will answer in line with what he has seen & experienced: 'Fabrications should be regarded in this way. Fabrications should be investigated in this way. Fabrications should be seen in this way with insight.' Then eventually he [the first] will become one who has attained both internal tranquillity of awareness & insight into phenomena through heightened discernment.
"As for the individual who has attained insight into phenomena through heightened discernment, but not internal tranquillity of awareness, he should approach an individual who has attained internal tranquillity of awareness... and ask him, 'How should the mind be steadied? How should it be made to settle down? How should it be unified? How should it be concentrated?' The other will answer in line with what he has seen & experienced: 'The mind should be steadied in this way. The mind should be made to settle down in this way. The mind should be unified in this way. The mind should be concentrated in this way.' Then eventually he [the first] will become one who has attained both internal tranquillity of awareness & insight into phenomena through heightened discernment.
"As for the individual who has attained neither internal tranquillity of awareness nor insight into phenomena through heightened discernment, he should approach an individual who has attained both internal tranquillity of awareness & insight into phenomena through heightened discernment... and ask him, 'How should the mind be steadied? How should it be made to settle down? How should it be unified? How should it be concentrated? How should fabrications be regarded? How should they be investigated? How should they be seen with insight?' The other will answer in line with what he has seen & experienced: 'The mind should be steadied in this way. The mind should be made to settle down in this way. The mind should be unified in this way. The mind should be concentrated in this way. Fabrications should be regarded in this way. Fabrications should be investigated in this way. Fabrications should be seen in this way with insight.' Then eventually he [the first] will become one who has attained both internal tranquillity of awareness & insight into phenomena through heightened discernment.
"As for the individual who has attained both internal tranquillity of awareness & insight into phenomena through heightened discernment, his duty is to make an effort in establishing ('tuning') those very same skillful qualities to a higher degree for the ending of the (mental) fermentations.
"These are four types of individuals to be found existing in the world."
~ The Buddha: Anguttara Nikaya AN 4:94  ~
Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

Looking at my own practice, I would place myself in the second category. While wisdom and insight come relatively easy to me, deep calm or concentration are another matter. This is due to my anxious nature, a trait that I inherited from my mother. I wonder, is U Tejaniya the right teacher for me right now? I have been planning a trip to see him at his monastery in Burma, early next year. Now, I am not so sure. That I feel great affinity for his teachings, is more a reflection of my own tendencies towards insight. It may be that someone like U Pandita, although more challenging, is exactly what I need at this point.

Which one of those four persons are you? How should it inform your meditation practice, and your choice of a teacher?